12 June, 2009

The Flexible Border

Sushma Joshi

Accusations that the Indian security forces have been causing havoc by raping Nepali women and forcing them away from their land by moving the border markers has made front page news in recent days. So is Koilabas another Susta? I was interested to read a report prepared by a mixed group of seventeen civil society members, including eight journalists, two policemen, one INSEC representative, and government officials who went to the border to investigate. Interestingly, there were no women on the team -- and perhaps some conclusions, especially about rape, may have been radically different had a few women been included in the team.
The Dang border, says the report, is about an 8-9 hour walk from the highway through small paths across rivers, jungles and hills. There are 22 crossing points in Dang in about 82km of border -- and each border crossing point is about a two hour walk away from each other. Only Khangra and Koilabas have police stations on the Nepali side -- the rest don't even have a police post.

Koilabas, 60km away from district headquarters Ghorahi, is linked by a gravel and an unpaved road but in the monsoon this road becomes unpassable. For the past 15 days, this road has been unusable, forcing people to walk for four hours to the border.

Since many of the displaced came from Khangra and Adbaruwa, the team went and discussed with them and found out that the Landless Struggle Committee, having promised the people land closer to the highway, had asked 2-3 people from each family to join the group and move away from the border.
In a village close to Khangra, the investigation team saw the Indian side digging an irrigation ditch, an activity that did not honour the 10 gajja of no man's land territory.

Now the interesting conclusion -- all the border markers were old, and in need of repair. One had been washed away by a flood and had yet to be reinstated. The 10 gajja of no-man's land wasn't honoured. But there was no sign that the Indian security forces seized the land around them.
What the report seems to conclude, rather, is that it's not the encroachment from the Indian side, but the neglect from the Nepali side, that seems to be the problem. There was no police post on the Nepali side, while the Indian side had its SSB police force in place. And herein lies the gist of the matter -- there were no roads, no health posts, no veterinary services, no schools, no post offices, no telecom offices, no electricity -- for the Nepali citizens living in this area.

Even the land meant for a police post in Khangra had been seized by locals who had put in a foundation for a private home. There was no seeds, fertilizers, or any other agricultural supplies necessary for farming to reach this remote border point.

The Nepali government had failed to ensure government presence on the border. There were no land registration offices which could show that land was measured and registered when bought and sold. Hunger was endemic because there was no good provision for year around food supply. There was no baazzar on the Nepal side, so the locals had to depend on the bazzar on the Indian side, which was a four hour walk through the jungle.

There is conflicting testimony about the Indian border security force, with some saying they restricted their access to the bazzar, and others saying there were no restrictions. Some said the SSB restricted locals from purchasing more than seven kilos of food. The border police force also insist on the custom tax, ask to see citizenship papers (which most Nepali on this side of the border lack), and they also try to confiscate animals meant for sale. But others also claim the border force allows them up to 50 kilos of food, cement, sugar, fertilizers and other essentials without restrictions. Perhaps the answer to this lies less in foreign policy and India-Nepal relations but in how well each Nepali is able to establish a rapport with each Indian security guard.

Now the question of rape. Interestingly, the paragraph on rape is almost a case study on how not to investigate cases of rape. Here is a verbatim translation: "On asking locals about sexual harassment and abductions of women at the border, the team were told that such incidents took place in the past but in the present such incidents do not occur and there has been no cases filed in the police about such cases."

Now as every activist (male or female) working in rape knows, going up to a potential victim and saying to them: by the way, have you heard of any rape cases around this area? is rarely a good way to get accurate information. Victims often suffer from psychological and physical trauma of the incidents. They are not willing to confide to a fly-by-night team that yes, indeed, the border security force raped them -- especially since there is no police protection and no guarantee of safety that any protection will be accorded to them after the investigation team leaves.

If the Nepali government is really serious about investigating accusations of rape by the Indian border force, it will get together a diplomatic team in Nepal who will fly to New Delhi, get hold of the Indian Government's Ministry of Women Affairs and form an investigative team that will include high level Indian police officers like Kiran Bedi, and prosecutors who have worked to put rapists in prison. This team will then spend two to three weeks talking to Nepali (and Indian) women at the border, and conclude by dismissing key offenders and implementing strong sexual harassment laws in the Indian border security force. And while we are are it, we should do the same for the Nepali security forces as well.

The two countries must also provide safe homes and counseling centers for women facing sexual violence on the border area, since borders seem particularly prone to incidents of violence against women.

According to advocate Govinda Bandi Sharma, there is no legal solution to encroachment. Somebody has filed a lawsuit in the Nepali Supreme Court but one cannot really take the Indian Embassy to Nepali court because they enjoy diplomatic immunity. "The only solution is a diplomatic one," says Sharma.

The way forward is constant pressure and vigilance from civil society to document and investigate actual incidents. Nepali civil society groups must also make linkages with Indian ones and keep them informed about actual incidents so Indian journalists, lawyers and citizen groups are updated on these situations and can raise it within their own legal system.

The Nepali government must also get its dysfunctional foreign ministry in order, and engage in diplomatic talks with the Indian side. One good way may be to informally engage former ambassadors to India, who already have the experience of dealing with their Indian counterparts, to broaden the discussion and keep it in the public eye.

Instead of blaming India for all its problems, the Nepali government must get off its lazy and dysfunctional ass and immediately provide essential services at the border, including citizenship certificates for its nationals, land registration offices, and border monitoring guards.
And all of this, of course, must be constantly monitored by civil society to ensure the Nepali government removes its ostrich head from the quicksand of political bickering and actually does something for its citizens.

(Sushma Joshi has a BA in International Relations from Brown University)

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